School meals are a lifeline to tens of millions of families across the country. Learn about new research on how healthy meals benefit kids—and why school meal programs must be supported, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a typical day before the pandemic, school refrigerators across America did far more than serve lunch to the nearly 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, and the nearly 15 million participating in the School Breakfast Program. Many also served afterschool snacks and even dinners for students to take home to their families. These school meals are a lifeline for tens of millions of kids and families who are furthest from economic opportunity.
All of this changed on March 15, 2020 when the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic started to settle in and schools across the country began closing. Students in Houston were getting ready for Spring Break just as lockdowns began. This timing meant that instead of being stocked to serve students for the week, refrigerators across the Houston Independent School District (HISD) were empty.
Upon facing the reality that millions of families across Houston would need food, Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer for the HISD, sprang into action.
She knew the Houston Food Bank—a well-oiled meal distribution operation—could help. In spite of the short notice, they joined forces with Betti and her staff, along with other partners and volunteers. Using a warehouse the size of four football fields, they packaged thousands of bags of food. These meals were transported in long refrigerated trucks to distribution sites across Betti’s district as well as to 17 additional districts across Houston. As a result, she was ready to distribute food to car lines of families from across the city.
Innovative heroes like Betti Wiggins, and others like her all across the country, know that the meals they provide ensure many kids are getting the essential nutrients they need. It’s a critical service and support for families, especially during a pandemic. But the “Bettis” of the country cannot and should not do it alone—and many districts don’t have the resources needed to feed their students during this crisis. Our schools and families need support from all levels of government to ensure that nutritious school meals are available to every single child who needs them.
COVID-19 relief measures passed by Congress in March 2020 enabled the USDA to issue nationwide school meal waivers, eliminating paperwork for states and helping more schools quickly adopt and utilize flexibilities. The COVID-19 relief measures also enabled USDA to approve state plans to provide emergency assistance—through SNAP—to households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals at school. The relief legislation has also provided $8.8 million in additional funding to cover food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools.
Emergency measures that strengthen and improve the quality of school meals must continue and be expanded throughout recovery to ensure that all children have enough nutritious food. Experts believe that 17.1 million more people could become food insecure due to lost income, job loss and other hardships tied to COVID-19. And with the pandemic continuing to keep many schools closed or offering a mix of in-person and remote learning, and families out of work, food insecurity will continue to rise; making these meals more critical than ever for preventing hunger and promoting health.
At the Foundation, we believe every child—and every family—in this country deserves a fair and just opportunity to live the best, healthiest life possible. That means families should be at the center of policy discussions and every effort should be made to strengthen policies so families have the supports and resources they need to raise healthy kids. School meals have always had a critical role in helping kids grow up healthy. Today and throughout recovery from this pandemic, they truly are a lifeline for millions of kids.